Working away today, I caught an NPR story about social and behavioral scientists who are beginning to study altruisim and freeloading (which can be flipsides of each other). The results of the studies indicate that the healthiest groups (at least in economic models) are those that, not only do not reward freeloading, but actively punish it:
[S]cientists in England and Germany conducted an economic game. The goal was for each player to make as much money as possible.
But to be really successful, people had to cooperate by pooling their funds.
People in the game could join one of two teams. The first depended on voluntary cooperation. The second allowed members to sanction those who didn’t chip in.
Bernd Irlenbusch of the London School of Economics says students’ behavior changed dramatically over time.
“In the beginning participants were very reluctant to join the sanctioning institution,” she says.
But they soon figured out that people in the sanctioning group were making more money because more people contributed. There were fewer freeloaders.
After every round, Irlenbusch says, more students switched to the sanctioning group, even though members had to pay money if they wanted to sanction someone.
She says eventually even the freeloaders in the first group switched to the second group and changed their ways. And they began punishing anyone else who didn’t cooperate.
In other words, a traditional society, a capitalist society with traditional Judeo/Christian values, seems to be the most profitable for all. Just as significantly, we seem to be hardwired for that type of society:
Fowler says the explanation for altruistic behavior may be that our brains are wired to reward us for punishing freeloaders.
“That might be why we see individuals having an emotional and even sort of a brain response to punishing,” he says. “They actually feel pleasure when they punish people for violating a social norm.”
And Fowler says it takes just a few punishers to change the behavior of a lot of freeloaders.